Film Review: Ballast

Ballast is an impressive debut from director and writer Lance Hammer. Despite its simple narrative, the film successfully generates a memorable atmosphere.

Single parent Marlee and her teenage son James struggle financially living in a small Mississippi Delta town. When a tragic incident occurs, they must co-exist with a face from the past, who has been deeply effected by the tragedy…

Ballast features an excellent beginning sequence that sets up the rest of the film. This introduction provides the audience with a sense of mystery; what occurs is only made clear later in the film. The sequence establishes a cold and distinct tone that permeates the rest of the film. It is a beginning that successfully absorbs viewers.

As much is derived from the silence as it is from the dialogue in Ballast. Lawrence is not forthcoming in conversing; his melancholy is depicted through his subdued mannerisms and reluctance to engage. Ballast focuses on themes of emptiness and isolation. Set in the Mississippi Delta, both Lawrence and Marlee live isolated existences; living away from others and bereft of a sense of community. In Marlee’s case, the effect of this isolation in more pronounced in her son James. Lacking friends of his own age and a father figure, James instead hangs out with drug dealers. The loneliness of his existence is made acute through Marlee’s ignorance of his issues. It is not that she doesn’t care; Marlee is too busy working to see what is going on with her son. The story told in Ballast is by no means extraordinary; it illustrates issues that face those living in similar areas.

Performances are good overall, especially as Hammer has used an amateur cast in the film. Micheal J. Smith Sr. brings an awkwardness to Lawrence that is very believable. Tarra Riggs conveys the frustration and stress of Marlee, while JimMyron Ross is adequate as James. The teenager is a character to both sympathise with and be frustrated by; Hammer makes this clear with a tempered depiction of him.

It is the cinematography and sound that most effectively generate an atmosphere in Ballast. The camera work is voyeuristic, with multiple shots peering through doorways or looking over the shoulder. This gives the impression of observing the action, rather than encroaching on it. Colours are subdued, looking almost desaturated. The subtle use of sound is excellent, particularly the low monotonous buzzing of the refrigerator and other machines. This eeriness evokes shades of Eraserhead.

The slow pace of Ballast will not me to everyone’s taste, but the film masters the understated. Ballast deserves its long-awaited cinematic release.